This blog message was contributed by Helena Taelman (ODISEE, Belgium).

Conversation is crucial for language acquisition, but talking in the home context is quite different from talking in an ECEC setting. I would like to share 5 tips to enrich those conversations.

1 The type of activity matters.

“Language-all-day-long” is a beautiful goal to pursue. However, in practice what really matters is what you do (a.o. Cabell et al., 2014). Excellent contexts to produce rich, language stimulating conversations have been shown to be science activities and storytelling moments. Thus, focusing on these is a first great strategy for language development.

2 Asking open-ended questions is great, but only a first step!

According to experts Wasik and Hindman, creators of the successful ExCELL-project, preschool teachers often ask good questions, but fail to stimulate elaborate responses (Wasik & Hindman, 2013).

Therefore, these researchers advise preschool teachers to think about questions beforehand. However, not too many, not 10, but rather 2-3 for each activity. In that way you are not in a hurry to complete an entire list of questions. Instead you’ll leave more space for the preschoolers to give elaborate answers. Other means are:

  • Elaborating the conversation with more questions
  • Encouraging several preschoolers to answer your question and comparing these responses
  • Giving the preschoolers enough time to come up with an answer
    • Waiting a bit longer before you decide that the child has nothing more to add
    • Teaching other children to listen to each other and to be silent in the meantime
    • Offering support to preschoolers who have more difficulties with language
    • By repeating the answer of the preschooler and adding to it
    • By modelling the answer

You can include central words and concepts of your theme in your questions, which you want the preschoolers to use. You could also include important ideas that are central to the topic under discussion.

3 It is better to have a number of longer, profound conversations than many short chats.

Your style of interacting has an effect on the language development of your students: the frequency in which you challenge them to speak, the frequency that you expand their answers. You probably already knew that. Yet, the way in which you use these techniques of interaction over time also matter. (This I did not know yet.)

Some preschool teachers start a (language developing) chat with as many preschoolers as possible – one after another. Other preschool teachers opt for more profound conversations. As a result, they cannot take up every opportunity for a conversation. According to Cabell et al. (2015), this second strategy is associated with a larger growth in vocabulary in preschool. Passing over opportunities is thus okay as long as it is for the benefit of longer, profound conversations.

In the following conversation, the preschool teacher passes over an opportunity:

  • Devin: I made a mountain.
  • Teacher: You made a mountain.
  • Devin: Yes, a big mountain with lava.
  • Teacher: Really? A big mountain with lava?

Instead, this teacher chooses for a prolonged conversation:

  • Teacher: Kelly, what are you making? (challenging)
  • Kelly: I don’t know.
  • Teacher: You don’t know? Tell me, what are you making? (challenging)
  • Kelly: A flower.
  • Teacher:  Oh, you are making a flower with a long stalk and small leaves. (expanding)
  • Kelly: Yes, it is a beautiful flower.
  • Teacher: I agree. It looks like a tulip. (expanding)

This advice is in line with the blog post by Liesl Veulemans about raising pre-schoolers’ involvement in games.

4 Make every effort to draw in timid preschoolers with a different native language

What do you do with a newcomer in your class who does not speak your language and is rather shy? You patiently try and involve him or her. You are right about that, for research has indicated that temperament plays an important role in second language acquisition. Timid preschoolers from immigrant families do not master the second language as well as preschoolers that are less shy (Keller, Troesch & Grob, 2013). In the same way, observation of preschoolers over a longer period of time shows that timid preschoolers develop their second language more slowly than the less shy preschoolers.

Recently, an excellent Dutch website was launched with tips about how to have a conversation with these children in a respectful way.

5 Preschoolers with a low SES need play mates with strong language skills to converse with.

Let us start with a disappointing research outcome. Norwegian 4-year-olds did not acquire more language when they were in a group with peers with high expressive language skills (Ribeiro et al., 2017). So, language heterogeneous classrooms are no miracle drug against language delays in preschoolers! Only language delayed preschoolers with a low SES profited from the presence of highly proficient peers to mitigate the delay. It is important for this target group that those proficient peers develop well, according to the investigators.



  • Cabell, DeCoster, LoCasale-Crouch, Hamre, Piante (2013). Variation in the effectiveness of instructional interactions across preschool classroom settings and learning activities. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 820–830.
  • Cabell, S. Q., Justice, L. M., McGinty, A. S., DeCoster, J., & Forston, L. D. (2015). Teacher–child conversations in preschool classrooms: Contributions to children’s vocabulary development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 30, 80-92.
  • Ribeiro, L. A., Zachrisson, H. D., & Dearing, E. (2017). Peer effects on the development of language skills in Norwegian childcare centers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 41, 1-12.
  • Wasik & Hindman (2013). Realizing the promise of open-ended questions. The Reading Teacher, 67, 302–311.


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5 research-inspired tips to develop preschoolers’ language through conversation
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